David Blackburn

The strange case of Turkey, Islamic history and V.S. Naipaul

Text settings

Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul has pulled out of the European Writers’ Parliament in Istanbul, following pressure from Turkish writers who felt ‘uneasy’ about comments he had made about Islam in 2001. Naipaul compared Islam to colonialism, arguing that both had had ‘a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say 'my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter.’

Naipaul’s comments concern the factual context of Islam’s expansion between the 7th and 17th centuries, hence the comparison with colonialism. (He continued his diatribe on Indian history by saying: ‘We should face facts: Islamic rule in India was at least as catastrophic as the later Christian rule. The Christians created massive poverty in what was a most prosperous country.’) Both are matters of historical record. Some of the Islamic historical narrative is alluded to in the Koran no less; notably, the Sura contains an account of the conquest of Mecca and the subsequent forced removal of idols and the expulsion of unbelievers. Also, the political and social aspects of the Prophet's remarkably successful military campaigns were recorded in Al-Waqidi’s ninth century (so broadly contemporaneous) history.

Those spiritual events had temporal effects; it is blindly anachronistic to suggest otherwise. However, several Turkish writers sensed only bigotry in Naipaul’s words. The Guardian reports:

‘Hilmi Yavuz wrote in the high circulation newspaper Daily Zaman that the invitation to Naipaul was disrespectful because he had insulted Islam in the past. Yavuz asked: "Will the consciences of our writers be at ease when sitting at the same table as VS Naipaul?" The matter was picked up by the broader Turkish media and fellow writer Cihan Aktas told the press: "The disgust he feels for Muslims in his books is appalling. I cannot attend the event given all of this."’

Craig Brown once savaged Naipaul for loathing everyone and everything, bar himself of course. Naipaul’s Booker winning In a Free State suggests his disgust is universal - he is unsparing of the men, structures and fates that have conspired to exploit the meek. He can be as strident as medieval Islam and colonialism were aggressive; but his reactionary detractors' success demarcates the true progress of freedom of speech and a secular conceptualisation of the past in Turkey, even among intellectuals.